Today is an “Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform” in Washington, D.C., with many evangelical luminaries, and even more evangelical activists, hosting advocacy worship services and lobbying Congress for immigration legislation that would legalize the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. It is billed as an unprecedented national push showing a “unified evangelical voice echoing a biblical vision for immigration reform that respects the rule of law, reunites families and upholds human dignity.”
As the New York Times recently announced, evangelicals, or at least some of their leaders, are rallying to the immigration cause. “It is very remarkable the degree to which there is a consensus,” National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) official Galen Carey told the Times, which reports that “no prominent pastor” has spoken out against the immigration effort.
But as the Times also noted, evangelicals are the demographic most resistant to the legalization idea. Some evangelical groups, like NAE, have made persuading their constituency a major objective. Evangelicals are seen as a potential pressure group on Republicans, who typically get 70 percent or more of evangelical votes.
And as the Times story evinces, evangelicals going against conservative stereotype, joining more liberal groups in political coalition, is a sure way to gain approving media attention. One Colorado writer enthused, “A number of influential evangelicals, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land and Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, have broken with their allies on the Right to advocate a more humane approach to the starving people who risk their lives to come to this country to wash our dishes and pick our fruit.”
The Catholic bishops have taken a similar stand on immigration. But Catholic teaching typically explains a hierarchy of public issues, prioritizing marriage and sanctity of life, for example, which are intrinsic to Christian faith, over important but less theologically binding issues of prudential judgment, such as federal entitlement programs or immigration. Evangelicals lack this clear tradition because, in part, they lack much of a tradition overall, being mostly a modern American movement that emerged out of several Protestant traditions. Partly as a consequence, evangelical elites sometimes tend to launch as a crusade any pressing cause of the day without a strong sense of spiritual or political priority.
Richard Neuhaus addressed this concern in 2005 in response to NAE’s then newly released public policy broadcast, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” He said there was “little of policy substance” about which he disagreed, “but the tonalities of ‘Thus saith the Lord’ are disquieting.” Numerous issues that NAE addressed resembled the equally “numerous promulgations emanating over the decades from the offices of the liberal Protestant establishment that is now in apparently irreversible decline,” he observed. Sounding the trumpet for “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, justice and compassion for the poor, human rights, peace, the restraint of violence, and the environment,” the NAE manifesto “would leave most people with no free evenings,” Neuhaus rued, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde.
“The Church (upper case) and the several churches encourage responsible citizenship, but they should not promulgate political platforms,” Neuhaus declared. “Christian citizens can and do disagree on specific policies, resulting in different political alignments.” Catholicism has a “social doctrine that sets forth in an intellectually sophisticated way theologically-grounded teachings regarding human nature, society, and the meaning of justice,” he said. “Such social doctrine provides directions but, with few exceptions (for instance, the defense of innocent human life), does not provide directives of immediate applicability to policy questions on which people of good faith, guided by reason and conscience, can come to different conclusions.” No less important, he said, the Catholic Church also claims an “authoritative teaching authority not made by other Christian communities, and certainly not by the NAE.”
Neuhaus, as usual, was right to be concerned. The NAE and other evangelical elites, often speaking for churches, have pivoted into a larger menu of political issues, even though lacking unequivocal scriptural and church teaching, and, no less important for Protestants, lacking consensus or even majority support from their own claimed constituencies. Some of the evangelical groups and leaders active in today’s lobbying event have grown relatively silent about marriage and abortion while loudly disclaiming about immigration “reform” as a Gospel imperative. Some of their policy arguments may have merit, but their theological claims and priorities are more dubious.